The consumer today is the victim of the manufacturer who launches on him a regiment of products for which he must make room in his soul.
Mary McCarthy: ‘America the Beautiful – the Humanist in the Bathtub’, On the Contrary (1961)
Consumerism has several definitions. We should explain that our target here is the pursuit of happiness through consumption and the acquisition of material possessions. Even that must be qualified, for it is undeniable that consumption does bring (though not guarantee) happiness and can be economically beneficial. So let us narrow down what we have in our sights by prefacing consumerism with the adjective ‘inordinate’, particularly if financed by borrowing.
You may think that recent events tend to show that our nation, somewhat in common with other developed countries, has mislaid its sense of values and lost touch with its financial (even moral) compass. Remarkably, we pay an Italian coach (admittedly talented) £6.1 million a year to manage England’s football squad, more than three times the nearest equivalent post holder (Marcello Lippi in Italy). Bankers and other executives claim extraordinary salaries and bonuses, a number of BBC entertainers are paid fabulous salaries, while some Members of Parliament have been caught up in a monstrous expenses scandal. It is small wonder then that the common person increasingly aspires to a better life, even in some cases to a second home. Not content with maintaining and cleaning one house and paying one whack of Council Tax, these enthusiastic duettists voluntarily duplicate their commitments, travelling huge distances to get away from their first to their second abode, or perhaps vice versa. Even more of us, no longer satisfied by simple things, fork out hard-earned cash and travel huge distances in pursuit of trivial pastimes and relaxation. Unfortunately, many – particularly after Christmas – are now left counting the cost, saddled with a burden of debt.
Advertisements present alluring, seductive scenarios, sometimes aimed at children, and are apparently (and remarkably) effective in shaping our cupidity. Obvious lifestyle mutations can be seen in our addiction to gadgets and gismos, and the metamorphis of homespun products into ever-more elaborate forms. This is not so much a Darwinian evolution as the survival of the most profitable. Try, we suggest, to find soaps in a contemporary chemist’s shop. They are still there, but diminished. You will more readily encounter ‘handwash’, in a range of colours with a plunger dispenser; along with a vast range of gels, lotions, hair colourings, specialist razors, even ‘shower therapies’, enough to satiate Narkissos. And there are a plentiful number of eager customers jostling to buy these intemperate luxuries.
Supermarkets – those gargantuan, impersonal temples of temptation – epitomise the psychology of consumerism, creating as well as meeting demand, luring the unwary to join a bonanza of prodigality. Many of them will feature conditional offers – such as ‘buy two, save 50 pence’ – calculated to increase rather than reduce spending, expanding consumption and, may we suggest, transferring wastage from the store to the consumer. (In the UK it is estimated that one way or another food waste alone now amounts to more than 8 million tons). The sale of cheap alcohol is a particular concern. You can now transform your living room – if you have one – into a saloon bar, the perfect snug, and be helped to face the challenges of life without ever going to a pub: twice the quantity at half the cost.
Those who lack the wherewithal can readily buy into the good life by using the friendly plastic credit card, confusing need with desire and capitulating wisdom to gratification by agreeing to pay rates of interest hugely above those available to savers. It is commonly alleged that the blame for our present recession lies with bankers who went in for irresponsible, reckless lending. But no less culpable are those consumers who allowed themselves to be seduced to take on burdens of debt that they could not repay, creating a culture of massive over-indulgence that almost brought the nation to financial ruin.
None of this, of course, is new. Thorstein Veblen coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ as long ago as 1899. Make no mistake, consumers are an endangered species. In this and previous issues we have drawn attention to the concern of the Office of Fair Trading over some of the perils of spending. The recession teaches a sharp lesson that as individuals there is a need for caution, for – dare we say it – what Gordon Brown used to call ‘prudence’, before it all went pear-shaped.